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Cullen reaches monumental milestone with 1,500 games played

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

A 20-year-old Matt Cullen hopped over the boards and his skate blade hit the ice for the first glide of his NHL career.

Cullen, a member of the Anaheim Ducks, was in Toronto's historic Maple Leaf Gardens when he set up for a defensive zone faceoff. Standing opposite of him in the circle was future hockey Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin. The puck dropped to the ice and Cullen lost the draw. 

The Maple Leafs used the win to get a scoring chance. After Anaheim cleared the puck, Ducks head coach Pierre Page called Cullen immediately back to the bench. 

"I remember my first shift. I lost (the faceoff) and they shot it on net and I got taken off the ice, so it was a short," Cullen laughed. "It was a short shift, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It's funny how fast it goes, but those moments are moments you never forget."

The game wasn't yesterday. It was Oct. 28, 1997, over 22 years ago. But it marked the beginning of a journey that has culminated in a 21-year NHL career, three Stanley Cup wins and, as of Tuesday night's game against Florida, the incredible milestone of 1,500 regular-season games played. 

"It's a cool number," a 42-year-old Cullen said of reaching 1,500. "I think when I'm all done and have time to look back on it I'll be proud of it. It's not easy to play in the game. It's a young man's game; it's a fast game. To be able to play this long is an honor." 

Cullen made stops in eight NHL cities in his career: Anaheim, Florida, Carolina (two stints), NY Rangers, Ottawa, Minnesota (two stints), Nashville and Pittsburgh (two stints). Two of those teams (Minnesota, Nashville) didn't exist on the night Cullen made his NHL debut. 

Cullen's 1,500 games played are the second-most by an American-born player and 20th all-time in the NHL (Cullen will likely pass Steve Yzerman, 1,514 for 19th this season). He's played in 1,628 games total when accounting for playoffs, not to mention those three Stanley Cups (two with Pittsburgh, one with Carolina).

"The first time in the playoffs was pretty special, just getting there," Cullen recalled. "The Stanley Cup runs are for me what stands out the most. Those are the ultimate. To be able to go through those experiences, those are the things I'll remember the most."

That, and the firsts. 

"The first game is always a huge one. The first goal is such a special memory," said Cullen, who scored against Florida's Kevin Weekes. "He became a good friend. I ended up playing with him in New York. I gave him a hard time about it for the whole season." 

Cullen has watched the evolution of the game over the past two decades. 

"The speed of the game, the skill level of the game, it's such a fun game to watch now," Cullen said. "It's (a young game), there are a lot of young guys flying up and down the ice. It's fun to be out here. It's fun to be part of the game when it's at such a high level." 

Even as the game became younger and faster, Cullen managed to stick around. 

Throughout his career, Cullen has filled every role from a top-line scoring center with power play time to a fourth-line checking center that specializes in killing penalties. It was his ability to adapt with his age that Cullen attributes for his longevity. 

"Being willing to accept different roles and fit in wherever you fit in," he said. "Putting the ego aside and doing whatever you can to help the team, that's a big part of sticking around and playing, making the most of whatever you're given.

"Being able to adapt has been something that's allowed me to stick around."

That, and paying attention to his health as he aged from his 20s became his 30s became his 40s.  

"The physical side of things, taking care of your body, paying attention to nutrition and things like that have served me well," he said.  

With the way Cullen practices self-care, is 1,600 games in the future?

Cullen replied with a hearty laugh and without hesitation: "Absolutely, not." 

"This is the only thing I ever wanted to do my whole life," he added. "It worked out pretty well."

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